Cozy Winter Nook

 

.

We don’t have to escape to a fancy hotel or retreat center…instead we can create a nurturing space at home! Though if you ever get the chance to stay at the Shelburne Farms, pictured above, take the opportunity.

Imagine carving out a space in your home that makes you feel warm and cozy. Maybe it’s a spot to sit and read, maybe it’s a spot to paint, maybe it’s where you lay your yoga mat, or maybe it’s just a spot to do absolutely nothing! 

This week I want you to brainstorm ways that you could create a “Cozy Winter Nook” that offers comfort and softness for you to enjoy over the next couple of months. Winter is a perfect time to embrace slowing down and taking time to nurture ourselves.

This can become a space that is your own personal retreat that you can look forward to at the end of each day. Or a space for you to linger longer during the weekends. We should be making time and space for “purposeful rest” and intentionally schedule in time as a way to refuel and recharge yourself. 

Step 1. Brainstorm: “If you were to add items to a drawer in your bedroom (or a basket) that reminded you to rest, what would you put in there?”

Step 2: Create SPACE: Begin to create the PHYSICAL SPACE by decluttering an area that feels good for you to rest…but don’t get so wrapped up in cleaning that you forget to sit & enjoy your cozy nook! We often need a gentle reminder that rest is important so also create MENTAL SPACE and agree that when you visit your cozy nook it isn’t to be “productive”. Think of what nourishes you and helps you relax…reading for pleasure, painting, journaling, doodling, meditating, etc.

Step 3: Commit to using your space for rest and relaxation on a regular basis. What frequency feels right to you~ daily for 10 minutes, 3 times per week…

What ground rules do you want to set for yourself ~ phone in a different room, little sign you put on the door so the family leaves you alone for 10 minutes…

Set yourself an achievable “Purposeful REST Goal” and write it down as part of your “Wellness Action Plan” 

Step 4: Reflect Write down a few words about how your cozy nook supports you. Post it somewhere so you are reminded to revisit and prioritize “cozy nook time”! When we take time to reflect we begin to be intentional with how we spend our time and reminds us to see the beauty all around us.

Lantern of Self Care

By April Zajko, M.Ed. 

We know that work we do in education is essential and has a tremendous impact on our communities and the families that we serve. We also know that being a caring, responsive, nurturing care provider can take a toll on our own wellness and health. The long hours and attentive care leaves us vulnerable to burnout during a normal year, but we can all agree that the last two years have been anything but normal. 

Self care is of critical importance now more than ever in order to maintain our own personal health, to minimize illness, to continue to find joy in our work, and to keep our passion for working with children and families alive.

A powerful image and analogy that I use when teaching fellow educators about self care is an old camping lantern. We can only burn as bright as the fuel that we put into our own lantern and we each need different types and quantities of fuel. The foods that we eat, the water we drink, the time set aside to be with friends, the uninterrupted hours of sleep, the positive words we read, the mid-day pause to notice the joy of the children in our care ~ all of these serve as fuel for our inner lanterns. 

The mobile nature of a camping lantern is that you get to shine wherever you go. Your impact on the world is greater when you shine your light on the issues that matter most to you. Wherever life takes me, and your lantern, you have the opportunity to spark hope, joy, and passion in the lives of those around you. Being in community with other like-minded individuals magnifies the impact of our lanterns. We can shine our light to help illuminate the path of others. When we figuratively or literally gather together our own lights are magnified and illuminate even more. 

We do not want to be burning our candle at both ends. We can not completely deplete our fuel reserves and still do the important work that we do. Instead we need to set our boundaries, continue to refuel, and prioritize that our flame is never too depleted. 

Right now in the education world (and many other professions) we are at a tipping point. We have a staffing crisis, we have a workforce that needs support for the work that we do, and we need to develop a stronger system that  helps each of us shine in our own way as we support children. It isn’t that we are ‘burned out’ and if only we did yoga more frequently all our problems would be solved. Rather we need to take time to care deeply for ourselves AND to do the advocacy work to build the systems that truly will support us as professionals and will support families. 

Other analogies of self care such as putting on your oxygen mask makes it seem like refueling is limited. Instead, the image of a lantern and knowing that we each need different kinds of fuel is more robust in view. We can learn how to refuel ourselves and at the same time help empower others to learn how they too can refuel. When we do this important work in community then we can illuminate the path forward. 

Reflection questions ~ take time this week to think about your own lantern and the reserves of fuel that you have. 

  • Are you running on empty? 
  • Is your light burning low and you need to refuel? 
  • What actions will help your refuel?
  • What parts of your day feel draining?
  • Who do you spend time with that lights you up?
  • Who depletes your energy? And can you shift how much time you spend with that person?
  • Are your volunteer opportunities fueling or depleting you? Can you shift how much time you spend volunteering?
  • What part of your home helps you recharge? Could you make changes to improve that space (declutter, rearrange furniture, add coziness..)
  • Journal about specific ways that you can carve out time in order to care for yourself so you can shine bright.

Grieving While Teaching

 

Reflecting on our values and our teaching practices is one of the most powerful ways to deepen our roots and to grow. Sharing those reflections with others is one way that we can mentor or support other teachers experiencing the same thing that we’ve gone through. So I offer my reflection of figuring out my core values while grieving, and how to navigate grieving while teaching….and I hope that it helps in your own journey.

As a lifelong learner, I continue to learn and grow. I believe that my teaching evolves each year, but at the foundation is one core value that I hold as my ‘true north’ ~ “LOVE”. Throughout my career my administrators, co-teachers, assistants, families, and children all remark how my classroom feels warm, nurturing, and safe. It’s a place that oozes with love and positivity. Parents especially appreciate how I create a sense of belonging and the trust that they feel by my approach with their children.

The fact of the matter though as teachers some years are tough because of our personal lives and so I want to share about one of my most difficult years of my life. One week prior to the start of school, my father passed away suddenly from testicular cancer and all I wanted to do was to climb into bed and keep the covers over my head. How on Earth could I manage to pull myself together to be an upbeat, organized, and fully present preschool teacher?

By some sweet miracle the school contacted me and said that preschool would have to be delayed opening by one week because of the odor of the gym floor being replaced. I was so grateful because I needed that week to pull my emotions together after the grief of losing my father. I felt like I needed to spend more time outside in nature alone, and to explore my own roots – who I was, what my values were, where I was going in my life, and figuring out who I was.

Before I knew about the delay in our start for preschool, I was so torn about taking care of my own health and being a fabulous teacher. I rarely take sick days, strive for perfection, and am in over-drive creating the best possible classroom that I can. At that time though I knew I couldn’t “pour from an empty vessel’ and knew I needed to take time for myself, time to grieve, and to process my emotions. So a huge gratitude to the universe for the delay in the gym floor so I could miss a week and still be there to start the school year with my preschoolers.

Creating community is one of my top priorities in teaching, and so I knew that I need to get the school year going on positive note despite my deep sadness. Chester Raccoon from the book “Kissing Hand” became my mascot in my classroom. I bought a raccoon puppet and used the puppet to teach about emotions. I thought a lot about how that kiss left in a palm could travel to the heart at anytime so the love of a parent could be felt, whether or not they were present. Though the book is about separation when a child goes to school, the parallel for grief work was very healing to me.

In many ways as we work through grief we wear a mask. Especially for our students and our own children at home, we want to be able to be present and upbeat so we put on the mask of ‘happiness’. Though I realized that I also needed to take time to grieve and to heal so I had to prioritize my ‘alone time’ when I didn’t have to have the ‘everything is okay mask’. This part of the grief journey means connecting to others who have experienced the same loss and who support your vulnerability.

At this same time my mother was also undergoing ovarian cancer treatment which meant that I was making frequent visits to be with her. My parents had been separated since I was three years old, and so the chances of them both having cancer at the same time was more than symbolic to me. As I visited with my mom we chatted about many things and I felt more comfortable to ask her heartfelt questions than I ever had as a child.

It became clear in January that her diagnosis was terminal and I tried my best to come to terms with losing both parents in less than a year. It was simply unfair and unjust. I went through a phase of anger, but I knew that I needed to find “BALANCE” in my life to not be swallowed up by grief. This journey helped me become much more intentional about how I spend my time and how I prioritize my own personal health and the time that I have for my own family. At first it felt selfish but I realized that I taking care of ourselves, including taking sick days and bereavement days, is how we can continue to be our best selves.
On Easter Sunday, I sat by my mother’s bedside and held her hand as she took her last breaths. The words to the song, “Turn, Turn, Turn” were playing in my mind as I sat there taking in the fact that this was the last time I would be with her. My lifelong champion, confidant, and closest friend would no longer be a phone call away. How could I live in a world without my mother? My ‘true north’ felt completely pushed off course and I knew that reorienting the sails would take work and effort. That night as I laid in the guest room bed, my mind was spinning, and I cried myself to sleep. When I woke up, I felt something renewed in me a deep sense of purpose.

With the loss of my mother, I decided to take two full weeks off before going back into my classroom. I knew that my assistant teacher would do a great job, and that the children would be just fine without me. Letting go of perfection or thinking that I needed to put on a superhero cape was a HUGE shift in me. During those two weeks, I let myself truly grieve.  I reflected on what I needed to do to be able to survive the last couple of weeks of school. Some days it felt like a survival situation and ‘just keep swimming’ was my mantra. The end of year tasks weren’t completed with perfection but it good enough really was enough. This was the first time in my career that I understood the vital importance of life / work balance, and when we reorient our priorities to care for ourselves we feel like we matter.

Five years have now passed since my father’s death and through reflection and inner work I can offer these thoughts:

– By striving to be a nurturing mother to my own children I honor the memory of both of my parents.

-By letting go of perfection and being a ‘flawesome’ teacher, parent, or spouse, I am happier and more content with my life. Owning our flaws is the best way to stop perfection from gnawing at us. My new mantra is “Purpose over perfection”

– By living with intention, I re-prioritize my life so that the precious time that I have here is lived fully, in alignment with my values, and with JOY. Before I commit to something, I check in to see if it fits with may values and life goals.

-By connecting with others I can create a new sense of “BELONGING” and though I felt like I had lost my ‘true north’ my memories always connect me to my parents, and other family and friends who have passed away. Connecting in real life to a small circle of friends who support and cheer each other on is vital to our health and happiness.

-Gentle self awareness and daily self-care makes the grief journey easier. Taking time to pause, breathe, and to remember that kiss in Chester’s palm is way that I can reset.

-I believe that when we are clear on our core values our decisions and path is easier to see. For me, my core values of love, balance, and belonging help me keep my life steered in the right direction.

 

Grieving while teaching can be very challenging and if you find yourself in that journey…my advice is to be gentle with yourself. Take time when you need it and communicate with your school team & home team when you need support. I believe that when we let go of ‘perfection’, we give ourselves some breathing room.  As I think of the two people who had a profound impact on who I am, my parents, I know that their best qualities are deeply rooted in me and that keeps me grounded. Taking the time to grieve, to rediscover our roots, and to connect to others is essential.

P.O.W.E.R. ~ Path of Wellness, Empowerment & Relationships

One of the best parts of leading professional development training is the deep conversation and connections that I get to make with other early care providers and educators.

On Monday of this week I led a training called “Leading with Empathy” and we dove deep into topics of emotional vocabulary, fostering inclusion and belonging in our programs, building strong relationships with the families in our programs, defining empathy & considering how to build those skills with children, and developing self care action plans.

This was the first time leading this training, but I knew that this was helping me to synthesize and apply much of the research and work that I have been exploring this year. Helping others to make deeper connections, act with compassion, gain more confidence in their work, and build up our reserves so we can be care givers without depleting ourselves, and to turn our vulnerabilities into strengths.

Whoa…this is important work for all of us no matter our field!

Driving home I was reflecting on the presentation and the conversations. The word “POWER” kept coming to mind, and my wish to be able to pass on confidence and power to all the women that I work with. Many child care providers and moms that I know need a POWER boost, and often I find myself giving PEP talks to other women who feel stripped of their power.

Community of Practice model ~ working together with others in order to improve ourselves and to foster growth within our team or community is the way to change our views. When we connect with a small group of others in this way, all working toward the same goal, we create a synergy! Being part of a community who are all committed to the same goal makes us feel like we belong, and we feel supported to grow and change.

Women’s Gatherings ~ for most of my life I have been part of a small tribe of other women who are working on the same life goals. As a teen being invited into drumming circles, as a young adult leading Wise Women’s retreats, leading yoga classes and adult wellness programs when I ran a Holistic Health Center. Later once I began working in early childhood education, leading parenting groups, play groups, Mommy Coffee Hour, and professional development. All of these tribes and circles have supported me and helped me become who I am.

So developing my own framework for growing into our P.O.W.E.R. is one of the big projects in store for June 2019!

P.O.W.E.R. = Path of Wellness, Environment, & Relationships ~ weaving together much of the research, reading, and inner work that I have been doing in order to offer an in-person women’s coaching group. I am also going to offer it as an online e-course as well so I can send my positive message to a wider audience. Eventually, I will have a framework or blueprint ready to share with other women who want to lead their own groups!

If you would like to be part of my FREE online BETA-test group or live local and want to be part of my summer group, email me at aprilzajko@gmail.com 

 

 

Thank you to the “Starting Points Child Care Network” in Randolph, Vermont for inspiring me this week! I hope you each took away some tools that you will use in your work! Our training this week really me inspired me! I am so eager to dive into developing this larger training program!

With gratitude,

April

Fire Drill

 

About twenty years ago I got woken up in the night to sirens in the distance. I was staying at my brother’s house and realized he had stayed late that night to work at the flower shop. So I grabbed my keys and rushed toward the sirens. As I approached my worst fears were realized, the fire was in the strip mall of my families flower shop and I could not believe my eyes. It was engulfed, there were fire trucks everywhere, smoke filled the sky, and my mind raced. I parked and ran toward the first fireman I saw and through my sobbing and hyperventilating I told him I thought my brother was in there. He assured me he wasn’t because they had a done a thorough sweep. When I finally connected with brother I was so relieved that he was alive. It was one of the scariest days of my life, and to this day I still feel panic when there is a fire siren or fire alarm.

The arsonist, who had targeted the biker bar next door to our shop, committed the crime to retaliate against his cheating girlfriend. He was arrested and served time, but it continues to baffle me how others do not realize the impact that their actions have on others.

My family never reopened that flower shop in Rising Sun, Delaware and almost my entire family moved to Virginia to start over. It was heart breaking to see years and years of work be destroyed by the senseless act of a stranger. Though our portion of the building was still standing every item had smoke or water damage. Knowing that none of us were injured in the fire and feeling support of our friends and community was our saving grace getting through that time.

Now, even twenty years later, I am still impacted by that night. I always ask my employers for a five minute warning before a fire drill, and almost always they understand and agree. I also teach about fire safety to my students and try to give them the opportunity to see a fire truck up close, and to see a fire man go from his normal clothes to full gear. Children are often very frightened by firemen with their ventilator masks on, and so it’s essential for them to know not to hide from a firefighter coming into their home to save them. (more fire saftey teaching tips in a future post)

I share this story because I know many other educators also have similar stories of how a fire has impacted their lives, and though everyone got out safe there can still be traumatic aftershocks. What seems like a routine monthly drill can send a person into a panic. It is important to talk to your coworkers and employer so that they know that this is an issue, and hopefully they would agree that you deserve a five minute warning. Each of us has our own challenges, and it is okay to ask for support.